Category: Archive

Dublin Report: Our turbulent century ends on a note of hope for Ireland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

History can be as untimely as an early-morning caller; it can arrive too early. That was how it was with the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. It arrived before the people were ready to welcome it.

The great thing about the Good Friday peace agreement, as I write, is that nobody died just before Christmas this year as the result of strife in Northern Ireland.

Everybody concerned with the Sunningdale Agreement, especially the late Paddy Devlin and the Gerry Fitt, realized just how difficult it was going to be to implement it.

Yet it was not too different in structure to the present administration that has finally emerged from the glowing embers of the Good Friday agreement. However, I believe that we can truly say in Ireland that history was made at the end of 1999.

That much said, it must be added that the ridiculously provocative fleet of Mercedes bearing Irish government personnel to Stormont like victorious generals certainly did little to assuage Unionist susceptibilities.

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The danger is that Sunningdale was also regarded as being historic in its time. There was power sharing on a democratic basis. There was a nationalist nod and wink in the direction of the continuing devolved British hegemony over Northern Ireland.

Devolved government would continue only so long as the majority wished it to continue. There was an all-Ireland dimension, however tenuous, compared to the much stronger links that were negotiated in the Good Friday agreement.

There was also Brian Faulkner, the leader of the Unionist Party. However hawkish he seemed in public, he finally gathered enough courage to attempt to make the reconciliation work.

After the signing of the agreement, there was also the feeling of satisfaction among the leaders of the SDLP, who felt that a job had been well done.

I recall very well one of the impromptu get-togethers they had in a center city public house after one of their official meetings with the Irish government. Devlin, Fitt and John Hume adjourned for a brief repast with some of the news staff who worked with the Irish Press Group.

Devlin was especially ebullient. He had sought all of his life for an agreement such as that reached. Sitting comfortably in the upstairs lounge, he tugged at his expansive waistband and casually dropped a loaded automatic pistol on the bar counter.

"Will yeh look after that, son," he suggested to the startled barman. "I’m fed up lugging it around!"

Devlin did not like guns. Neither did Fitt, who glared at him angrily. He did not relish such bravado gestures. Most of the leading Northern politicians were armed in those years. It was safer, even in the Republic.

While the Provisional IRA carried out daily attacks even as the Northern Assembly fought for its survival, right-wing dinosaurs like the Rev. Ian Paisley pounded every available pulpit and table, denouncing Faulkner as a modern Lundy.

Alas, we were to endure many more years of violence before the people seemed to accept that there was no other solution other than reached on Good Friday.

History may have arrived too early in 1974. But there is every reason to believe that it is now in the right time and the right place.

Even better, the present agreement is so far reaching that it may ultimately erode the residue of bitterness that has always bubbled beneath the surface of Anglo-Irish relations.

It may even lead to a new, mutually acceptable relationship between the islands. In that respect as well, history may yet be made. The foundations are well and truly in place.

After the first official meeting of the council of the islands, as it has been awkwardly described, Bertie Ahern answered a shouted question from a journalist, concerned to know if there was any possibility that the Republic of Ireland might rejoin the British Commonwealth.

His cheery response was, "Let’s get over this first!"

While Ireland may never rejoin the Commonwealth, especially as it progresses within the European Union, and while it is even more doubtful that there would be any benefit in rejoining, there is no doubt that the people of both islands can profit enormously from closer, friendlier ties.

Brit baiting does not prove one’s Irishness. Being pro-Irish does not mean that one has to be anti-British.

Ireland’s long struggle was never with the British people, as such. It was a fight against the vested interests of an uncaring empire and the ultraconservative bigotry that held it in place. It was, for the most part, a never-ending struggle against racist oppression and for the right to be independent.

In the context of its times, it was inevitable. You can never "if" history.

Europe and Ireland have changed beyond all recognition even within the last 10 years. The European Union has changed all of the political parameters. It is growing into the United States of Europe. That progression can hardly be arrested now. Even where there may be a lack of political will on the part of any of the member states, economic self-interest will soon fill the gap.

Nationalism, in the sense of "Ourselves Alone," against the rest of the world, is a thing of the past in Europe. It is good that it is. It was nationalism that exploded into two world wars in this fading century, the most devastating wars in the history of mankind.

The new century washes in on a tide of hope for the western world. For Ireland, it is especially so. Never have the omens been so good. Never has the future seemed so bright. Too long a suffering may make a stone of the heart. But even stones can melt.

It is now something of a cliché to thank the many Irish Americans who have contributed so much to the peace process. Most of all, President Clinton and his administration have to be thanked for the vital role they played. The choice of George Mitchell as the diligent broker was particularly significant.

By no means, is it all over. It is even too early to say that it will definitely be a success.

The only fact that can be stated for sure is that, as we enter the year 2000, the island of Ireland has never been better poised to play what is, after all, the only game in town.

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